The Post-Journal

A Letter To Mario

Tom D’Angelo of Jamestown sent a letter to Mario Lemieux last week. The Pittsburgh Penguin superstar, who has been the National Hockey League’s leading scorer three times and appeared headed for a fourth title this season, probably receives thousands of fan letters, but D’Angelo’s correspondence wasn’t a fan letter. It wasn’t even about hockey. It was a letter about life – with cancer.

Last week, it was announced that Lemieux has Hodgkin’s disease. D’Angelo also had Hodgkin’s disease and that is what he emphasized in his letter – had.

Just like Lemieux, D’Angelo was 27 when he had that form of cancer in 1970 and like Lemieux, D’Angelo had a lump in his neck and had to have radiation treatments on his neck and throat. So he knows what Lemieux will be going through. However D’Angelo’s Hodgkin’s disease was considered Stage Three, more serious then Lemieux’s Stage One which has a cure rate of 95 percent. Back when D’Angelo faced the disease the cure rate was 50 percent.

D’Angelo was vacationing in the Bahamas in 1970 and couldn’t understand why he was exhausted after swimming only 10 yards. On the fight home he started have cramps in his left shoulder. The doctor D’Angelo visited thought he might have mononucleosis and advised a visit the hospital for tests.

“I refused” D’Angelo said. “I was scared of needles.”

But when he became exhausted at his job, which at the time was selling shoes, D’Angelo finally went for tests and that is when a doctor discovered Hodgkin’s disease which D’Angelo didn’t know was a form of cancer.

“I said, ‘Ok, fix it,’” he recalled. “Then he said Roswell (Park Cancer Institute) and I said nothing.”

That was the start of what D’Angelo calls a two-month “pity party.”

“I was terrible” D’Angelo recalled and remembered treating everyone horribly as he kept feeling sorry for himself while continually asking “Why me?”

Of course now he knows.

“Cancer sees no special people,” he said.

Not even NHL superstars.

“For the first month and a half I thought I was going to die,” he said. “Then one doctor convinced me that I was going to live.”

That is why D’Angelo understands when Lemieux stated last week he “cried for hours” when he learned he had Hodgkin’s disease. Even though Lemieux’s Stage One of the disease is supposed to be 95 percent curable, D’Angelo understands.

“I don’t care what it (the recovery rate) is,” he said. “’Maybe I’m the 5 percent that won’t make it.’ I know that’s what he’s thinking.”

For four months D’Angelo went to Roswell Park in Buffalo five days a week for radiation treatments. Then there was chemotherapy and he also had his spleen removed. The treatments left D’Angelo very tired and that is why he questions whether Lemieux can be back playing hockey in the four to six weeks as originally reported.

“I don’t see how he could,” D’Angelo said “The radiation knocks you down, and the radiation doesn’t leave your body for a year.”

The radiation treatments to his neck, which Lemieux is also supposed to have, left D’Angelo’s throat so sore that swallowing water was a painful experience. He was on a liquid diet for about two months and lost 44 pounds. It was two years before he was back to normal and able to work full time. He resumed his football and baseball officiating duties and was able to bowl again.

But he points out, “I wasn’t in the shape Mario Lemieux is in either.” And he added, “They changed a lot of things now (since he was treated 23 years ago).”

D’Angelo still says, “I don’t think he’ll play for the rest of the year.”

It will be tough on Lemieux, but D’Angelo emphasizes it will be tougher on his parents.

“This has to be devastating to them,” he said and recalled his own parents worry. “To this day if I catch a cold they still worry.”

It was family and friends who helped D’Angelo get through his ordeal. And it was also strangers who had or were dealing with the disease that soon became friends as that they offered to simply talk and lend support. Now D’Angelo does the same thing.

He recalled one person who helped him through it was Suzette Woodfield, who eventually died while going thought her treatment for Hodgkin’s disease.

That is why D’Angelo in his letter said he figured Lemieux would become involved in helping other cancer patients and would take part in fund raisers. He didn’t know at the time that Lemieux was the honorary fundraising chairman of the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute because he had two uncles and a cousin who had Hodgkin’s disease die of cancer.

D’Angelo expects Lemieux to make a complete recovery and then he’ll be a different person.

“I feel he’ll be a better hockey player. If he can possibly get any better,” D’Angelo said. “All the pressure of hockey will be off of him.”

That is because when you beat cancer, it is frivolous to worry about missing a rebound goal or not scoring on a breakaway or even falling to win a Stanley Cup.

The battle with Hodgkin’s disease improved D’Angelo’s outlook on life because it is difficult to get upset when things go wrong. Why?

“I’ve already beaten my biggest thing,” he said.

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